Magazine article The Christian Century

Nonbelieving Authors Make Room for Belief

Magazine article The Christian Century

Nonbelieving Authors Make Room for Belief

Article excerpt

Bruce Sheiman doesn't believe in God, but he does believe in religion. Setting aside the question of whether God exists, it's clear that the benefits of faith far outweigh its costs, he argues in his new book, An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion Than Without It.

"I don't know if anybody is going to be able to convince me that God exists," Sheiman said in an interview, "but they can convince me that religion has intrinsic value."

The old atheists said there is no God. The so-called "New Atheists" also say there is no God, and they have been vocally vicious about it. Now, the new "New Atheists"--call it Atheism 3.0-say there's still no God, but maybe religion isn't all that bad.

Faith provides meaning and purpose for millions of believers, inspires people to tend to each other and build communities, gives them a sense of union with a transcendent force and provides numerous health benefits, Sheiman says. Moreover, the galvanizing force behind many achievements in Western civilization has been faith, Sheiman argues, while conceding that for the most part he limits his analysis to modern Western religion.

"More than any other institution, religion deserves our appreciation and respect because it has persistently encouraged people to care deeply--for the self, for neighbors, for humanity, and for the natural world--and to strive for the highest ideals humans are able to envision," Sheiman writes.

Religion has always had its cultured defenders--atheists who speak up for the social benefits of faith. The philosopher Plato, for instance, did not believe in the gods of the Greek pantheon but argued that other people should, for the good of society. He even proposed criminalizing disbelief in the existence of deities and immortality of the soul.

In recent years, the skeptical scene has been dominated by the New Atheists-Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others--who argue in best-selling books that religious faith is a mental illness or worse.

But now a new crew of nonbelievers is taking on the New Atheists, arguing that while they may not have faith themselves, there's little reason to belittle believers or push religion out of the public square. The back-and-forth debates over God's existence have shed a little light but far more heat, they argue, while the world's problems loom ever larger.

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"The work that we need to do, we atheists, humanists and nonbelievers, is to build a better world and not try to tear down those with whom we disagree," said Greg M. …

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